Henry Baker’s historic list of Black patent holders includes prominent Washington, D.C., inventors and entrepreneurs 

BY REBEKAH OAKES

Spanning nearly half a block on the corner of 15th and H Street N.W., the sturdy, brick Wormley Hotel was located in the heart of D.C. society in the late 1800s.

The headquarters of Riggs Bank, so prominent it was referred to as the “Bank of Presidents,” resided down the street. Patrons could easily stroll through Lafayette Square, attend a service at St. John’s Episcopal Church, or—given the proper invitation —enjoy a conversation with pre-eminent intellectuals and community leaders at the Cosmos Club, a private social venue for science enthusiasts. For those creatively inclined, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the National Theater were within a few blocks, as was the White House itself.

This location, alongside the outstanding hospitality the Wormley was known for, attracted all kinds of clientele, from members of Congress to ambassadors to business tycoons.

This was all the more exceptional given that James Wormley, the hotel’s proprietor, was not permitted at the Cosmos Club—nor was he able to sit wherever he liked at the National Theater. Wormley was a Black man living in a city where many facilities were segregated by race.

Less than a mile away, among the rows and rows of patent models stored at the Patent Office, was a gong and signal chair invented by Miriam Benjamin, a Black woman. The chair, which allowed the user to quietly call for assistance while remaining seated, had a number of potential applications.

Patrons staying at hotels like the Wormley could call for a waiter or attendant, as could passengers waiting in a railway station or patients at a hospital. Benjamin estimated that her invention could cut down the number of attendants needed by 30 percent to 50 percent.

Taking an active role in marketing her chair, Benjamin lobbied for its use by the House of Representatives, a legislative body that was not representative of people like her. In 1888, the year Benjamin received her patent, none of the elected members were women and very few were Black.

A good deal of what historians know about African American entrepreneurs and inventors like Wormley and Benjamin comes from census data. At the turn of the 20th century, clerks at the Census Bureau, then headquartered in southwestern Washington, D.C., were expected to accurately process hundreds of census schedules per day.

Robert Pelham, who had an exceptional mind for improvements, took this as a challenge. Two years into his tenure at the Census Bureau, he set a new record by tabulating 1,150 schedules in one day.

The previous record? 591.

Three years later, at a time when many newspapers were printing articles questioning the intellectual capabilities of Black men like Pelham, he received a patent for a device that made his work even more efficient.

Miriam Benjamin, James Wormley, and Robert Pelham had a great deal in common. They were all originally from below the Mason-Dixon line, born free during the era of enslavement. They were all determined to succeed and build generational wealth and came from families who resolved to do the same. For a time, they were all part of an emerging middle class of Black entrepreneurs, professionals, and civil servants living in the nation’s capital around the turn of the 20th century.

And they all appeared on patent examiner Henry Baker’s list of Black inventors.

For the entire story, see uspto.gov/learning-and-resources/journeys-innovation.